Mumps is an infectious illness caused by a virus. The virus is found in the saliva and mucus secreted by the nose, throat and lungs.

Usually, mumps produces mild symptoms: typically, swollen, sore salivary glands with a mild fever. The person often gets better without need for medical help. However, for some people, it can cause severe symptoms and, rarely, complications that lead to deafness, infertility in adult men or even death.

(Video from the Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ)

The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is available free and can prevent infection with mumps, as well as measles and rubella (German measles). Use of the MMR vaccine means that mumps is now rare, with just 78 cases identified in New Zealand in 2008.

How is mumps passed on?

The virus that most commonly causes mumps is a paramyxovirus. Others such as influenza, cytomegalovirus and Coxsackie viruses can also cause similar swelling of the (parotid) salivary glands.

Mumps is passed from person to person via infected saliva droplets in a sneeze or cough. It takes between 14 and 21 days for symptoms of the infection to appear, but the person can pass mumps on to others from about seven days before the symptoms appear, until nine days after.

Although traditionally mumps is thought of as a childhood disease, statistics for New Zealand show that adults accounted for more than a third of the cases in 2008.

What are the symptoms  of mumps? 

Some people – particularly young children – get only mild symptoms with mumps, or none at all. Others may feel very ill.

The most common symptom is painful swellingundefined
in one or both salivary glands just under
the ears and behind the jaw. This swelling
produces the classic ‘hamster look’
associated with mumps and usually develops over two or three days, before reaching a peak and easing off. The swelling tends to last around eight days. The glands are tender but not usually red and hot (this would suggest a bacterial infection).

Other symptoms include:

  • fever that may rise and fall in keeping with the swollen glands
  • pain when chewing and swallowing
  • sore throat
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • mild abdominal (tummy) pain
  • dry mouth
  • headache.

Less common symptoms and complications include:

  • swollen testicles or scrotum (orchitis) - this affects one in five adult males with mumps and very rarely leads to infertility
  • swollen ovaries in 5% of girls with mumps (this causes a more severe abdominal pain) 
  • encephalitis (inflammation in the brain) in one in 6000 people with mumps, with one in 100 of these dying as a result
  • viral meningitis in up to 15% of mumps cases
  • mumps in the first trimester of pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage.

How is mumps diagnosed?

In most cases, a doctor will diagnose mumps based on the symptoms, particularly the swollen salivary glands and fever.

If your symptoms are severe, or there are complications, you may be asked to have blood or urine test, or a cerebrospinal fluid test (lumbar puncture or spinal tap).

How is mumps treated?

Mumps is caused by a virus, so there is no cure. Treatments are aimed at relieving the symptoms.

  • Place a warm flannel or wheat bag against the swollen glands to ease tenderness.
  • Drink plenty of cool fluids, especially water.
  • Avoid acidic drinks like fruit juices as they can stimulate the salivary glands and cause more discomfort.
  • Take paracetamol or ibuprofen according to the manufacturer’s instructions for pain and fever. (Children under 16 years of age should not take aspirin-containing medication because of a rare but dangerous side effect called Reye’s syndrome.)
  • Men with severe inflammation in the testicles may be prescribed a stronger pain reliever or corticosteroid to reduce inflammation.

How can I avoid catching mumps?

The MMR vaccine is effective, free and part of the childhood immunisation schedule and considered safer than the disease it prevents.

If your child has mumps, they should be kept home from school or early childhood services for 5 days after swelling develops. This will help prevent the spread of mumps in your community. If your child is still unwell after 5 days they should remain at home until they are well.

If an outbreak of mumps occurs, people who have not been immunised and have not previously had mumps are at risk of infection.

According to the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC), these people need to stay away from schools or early childhood centres for 26 days after the appearance of swollen glands in the last person to be infected, to avoid catching the disease.

Immunisation may be offered to those who haven't been infected at this stage, as it can prevent the disease or reduce symptoms if the person does catch it.

Vaccination also decreases the risks of an infected person passing mumps on.

Learn more

Mumps Ministry of health (NZ), 2014

Credits: Reviewed by Dr Marguerite Dalton, paediatrician, coordinator for National WellChild/Tamariki Ora and medical advisor to the Immunisation Advisory Centre, September 2009. (Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control, USA).